MINNEAPOLIS — The four teenagers drove around playing a game of Nerf Gun Assassin on a May evening before graduation in 2013. One of them randomly fired an orange dart out the window.
It was a stupid teenager move. What happened next was deadly serious: Two Minneapolis police officers pulled up, pointed their guns at the teenagers and shouted orders laced with expletives, two of them later recalled.
Kristofer Bergh, then 17, said he kept telling himself not to move suddenly or give the police any reason to shoot him. The youth who had fired the dart was steered into their cruiser for what seemed like an hour, and the officers seized everyone’s Nerf guns. One officer made a lasting impression; in fact, Bergh and another passenger said they would never forget him, nor what he said as he gave them back their guns.
“Most of you will be 18 by the end of the year,” the officer said, before letting them go. “That means you’ll be old enough for ‘big boy jail.’”
It was Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who, seven years later, would become known around the world for putting his knee on the neck of a Black man named George Floyd during an arrest and holding it there for more than eight minutes, until he no longer had a pulse.
Floyd’s death sparked protests across the country. But even as the Minneapolis police chief called Floyd’s death “murder” and claimed that Chauvin “knew what he was doing,” little has emerged about the 44-year-old officer, now charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, or what in his career might have led up to an arrest so chilling in its quiet ferocity.
The roadside encounter with the four teenagers led to a complaint against Chauvin, and it reflected what both co-workers and citizens told The New York Times about encountering the officer over his 19 years with the Minneapolis Police Department: Chauvin did his job as if he were playing a role — a tough Dirty Harry on the lookout for bad guys.
“He was overly aggressive and not understanding that we were just kids,” recalled Noah McGurran-Hanson, who was in the car with Bergh and the two others, all of whom are white. “He was treating us like we had been tried and convicted.”
Chauvin, his lawyer and family members have declined to talk to The Times. Yet dozens of interviews with acquaintances depict a police officer who seemed to operate at an emotional distance from those around him. Chauvin was a quiet and rigid workaholic with poor people skills and a tendency to overreact — with intoxicated people, especially — when a less aggressive stance might have led to a better outcome, interviews show.
He was awkward. Other officers often didn’t like him or didn’t know him. He didn’t go to parties and didn’t seem to have many friends. Some neighbors knew so little about him that they didn’t even know he was a police officer until after his arrest. Even his wife of 10 years, a Hmong refugee and real estate agent, ended up estranged: Days after Floyd’s death, she filed for divorce and asked to change her last name.
Chauvin always wanted action. He continued to pound the streets in one of Minneapolis’s busiest precincts on its hardest shift, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., long after many others his age moved to desk jobs or the day shift.
That earned him kudos. He received two medals of commendation, for tackling an armed suspect and arresting an armed gang member. He also was awarded two medals of valor, after shooting a man wielding a sawed-off shotgun and subduing a domestic-violence suspect — whom he shot and wounded in the process.
But his performance also led to at least 22 complaints or internal investigations. Only one resulted in discipline. (Bergh said his complaint was shrugged off by a sergeant who apologized for any “negative interaction.”)
That is a high number compared with other officers, said Dave Bicking, a board member of Communities United Against Police Brutality, based in the Twin Cities. “His numbers should have definitely raised alarm with the department and triggered a review,” said Bicking, adding that most officers might get one or two complaints in seven years.
On his off nights, such as they were, Chauvin often worked security at a nightclub.
Even on the police force, Chauvin was an outsider. He often partnered with a rookie he was training, exacting in his expectations. That was fine with veteran colleagues, who did not necessarily want to ride alongside him.
“Occasionally, he would seem a little cocky,” said Lucy Gerold, a retired police commander who knew Chauvin. He was, she said, “the guy not everybody liked or wanted to work with.”
‘A Face in the Crowd’
Chauvin spent his early years in the Twin Cities suburb of West St. Paul, Minnesota, with a stay-at-home mother and a father who earned about $1,000 a month as a certified public accountant, barely enough for their small family. When Derek was 7, his mother filed for divorce, asking for the family home and child support for Derek and his baby sister.
His father soon asked for a paternity test of Derek’s baby sister; a blood test showed he was not the father. His father ended up with the family home and shared custody of Derek. His mother married her lover. And Derek attended four elementary schools in five years.
Derek did not play sports in school — at least, not that anyone remembers. He did not have a yearbook photo for his junior or senior years. One classmate from Park High School in Cottage Grove, another Twin Cities suburb, remembered him as the student in ROTC who never talked but always held the flag. Another classmate, Scott Swanson, said Derek flew under the radar.
“I don’t think he was an outcast or anything like that,” said Swanson, who said he had talked to fellow classmates in recent weeks who also barely recalled him. “He was just a face in the crowd.”
Weeks after graduation, Chauvin started as a prep cook at Tinucci’s, a restaurant 10 minutes from home. He enrolled that fall at the local technical college to study “quantity food preparation.”
But Chauvin decided he wanted a uniform.
He studied law enforcement at a community college; eventually, he would also earn a university degree in law enforcement. After joining the military police, he was deployed to a U.S. Army base in Germany, where he studied for the Minnesota police exam in his spare time. He did not socialize much or drink alcohol.
“He volunteered to be a designated driver for the guys who wanted to go into town at night and have a few beers,” said Jerry Obieglo, a platoon sergeant who supervised Chauvin.
Back home, in September 2000, at age 24, he applied to the Minneapolis police.
From the beginning, Chauvin stood out as gung-ho. When he reported for training after the police academy, he showed up in a new white Crown Victoria outfitted to resemble a police car, recalled one officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because talking to the news media could get him fired.
Leaving work, most officers dressed casually. But Chauvin, who stood ramrod straight like he was still in the military, left in full uniform, his pants pulled higher than most people wore them, his boots polished.
“In a group setting he would never connect and stand there like a small child,” the officer said. He added: “I was put off by his lack of communication skills. You never felt like he was present.”
Chauvin landed in the Third Precinct, one of the city’s busiest.
The biggest call of his young career came when he was 30, in 2006: Shortly after midnight, he and five other officers pursued a car driven by a man suspected of stabbing two friends. The man soon pointed a sawed-off shotgun at officers, the police said. They shot the man, fatally. Chauvin received a medal of valor.
Chauvin soon earned two letters of reprimand for his behavior on another call — his only formal discipline.
In August 2007, Melissa Borton was heading home from grocery shopping when Chauvin and a fellow officer pulled her over. Chauvin reached into the open window of Borton’s minivan, unlocked her door, undid her seat belt and started pulling her out, without any explanation, she recalled. Her baby and dog were left in the vehicle.
She said the officers put her in their cruiser and told her that they were looking for a vehicle resembling hers that had been involved in a crime. Eventually they told Borton, who was by then quite upset, that she could leave.
“When I got out, they noticed that my shirt was wet, which was from being a breastfeeding mother,” Borton recalled. She could not tell who taunted her as she returned to her car. “Chauvin or the other officer rudely said, ‘You probably have postpartum depression, and you need help.’”
A Wife and a Home
Until he was 27, Chauvin’s home address was his grandmother’s suburban house in Inver Grove Heights.
But about the time he pulled over Borton, Chauvin was becoming serious with his girlfriend, Kellie Xiong.
Xiong was a survivor. Her father had been a Hmong soldier fighting Communists in Laos before the family fled in the late 1970s, he later told a newspaper. After more than a year in a Thai refugee camp, the family moved to Wisconsin, sponsored by a church in Eau Claire.
Xiong married another Hmong refugee in 1991 in what she later told The Pioneer Press was an arranged marriage. She was 16. By 19, she had given birth to two sons.
She later left her husband, whom she described as abusive, and moved to the Minneapolis area to work as a radiologic technician at Hennepin County Medical Center. There, she met Chauvin, who had brought someone in for a health check before an arrest, she later told The Pioneer Press. He soon asked her out.
By 2008, they were planning their lives. Two weeks after Xiong filed for divorce from her first husband, Chauvin bought a new house in a new subdivision for $441,000. It was fit for a family, with four bedrooms, four bathrooms and a three-car garage.
The couple married in June 2010. From the beginning, they spread their money thin. Not only did Chauvin hold on to a townhouse he had bought in 2003, but the couple also bought a vacation home near Disney World in Florida in 2011.
Chauvin soon fell behind on fees for his townhouse. On a delinquency notice for $280 in 2013, Chauvin responded that he had paid everything and added, “So no payment is actually owed!” He faxed the response at 3:17 a.m., after finishing his shift in the Third Precinct.
By July 2014, the small debt had snowballed into a judgment of almost $8,000 because Chauvin never came to court.
Meanwhile, the Chauvins downsized. They sold their large house for almost $60,000 less than its purchase price. They bought a home a few blocks away, almost half the size.
In 2015, they appeared to toy with moving to Florida. They sold the home they had just bought. Kellie Chauvin got her radiologic technology license in Florida. Derek Chauvin registered to vote there.
But they stayed in Minnesota, where Kellie Chauvin got her real estate license in 2016. In her spare time, Kellie Chauvin continued with one passion — rescuing dogs, often caring for four at once — and found another, in beauty pageants.
Before one pageant, she described her husband as a “softy” who always opened doors for her.
But there were some awkward moments at the Mrs. Minnesota America contest in June 2018 when the husbands joined the show. A host asked Derek Chauvin, wearing an ill-fitting tuxedo and bow tie, what additional competition the women should perform. He suggested a rock-climbing wall — for the husbands.
“Well, you’re not competing, I’m talking about your wife here,” the host replied.
During a quiz segment, each contestant wrote down something about her husband, and the men had to guess which one described him. Derek Chauvin failed miserably, even as other husbands correctly recognized their wives’ responses. Initially, Derek Chauvin thought he was the one whose wife said he liked to tell stories. But he wasn’t.
A bit later, a host gave another clue: “Whoever you are, you do upside-down hanging crunches. You can do 100 at a time.”
No one stepped forward.
“Uh, Derek Chauvin?” the host said.
‘That Is Protocol’
The Chauvins often seemed to live on separate tracks.
When Kellie Chauvin took trips to help dogs — including one she rescued from Florida and named Marley — she often brought a female friend for company.
On most weekends for 17 years, Derek Chauvin worked an off-duty police gig outside the El Nuevo Rodeo nightclub, earning $55 an hour. Maya Santamaria, who once owned the club, said the Third Precinct decided which officers were assigned.
Derek Chauvin often overreacted when he saw something that bothered him, like unruly behavior around the club, including drunk patrons congregating on the street — especially on “urban nights,” when the clientele was largely Black, Santamaria said.
He often resorted to using pepper spray, she said. When she complained, she said, she usually got the same response.
“That is protocol,” Derek Chauvin told her.
Floyd, by coincidence, also did security at the club, but Santamaria said she does not recall seeing them together since Floyd worked inside.
Their one known encounter came on the evening of May 25, after a corner store employee reported that Floyd had tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. Two rookie officers, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, responded.
The two failed to get Floyd into their cruiser. Derek Chauvin and another officer, Tou Thao, arrived. Chauvin had been Kueng’s main training officer; Lane had relied on him for advice. (The three other officers, who were fired alongside Chauvin, have been charged with aiding and abetting in Floyd’s death.)
At Chauvin’s suggestion, the officers got Floyd, agitated and struggling, on the ground. Chauvin jammed his knee in the back of Floyd’s neck. The rookies held his back and legs.
Body camera footage shows what unfolded:
As Floyd said he could not breathe and asked for his mother, Chauvin uttered another tough-cop line. “You’re under arrest, guy,” he said. “That’s why you’re going to jail.”
Chauvin asked if Floyd was high; Lane said he assumed so. Toxicology results would later show that Floyd was on fentanyl.
“They’re going to kill me, man,” Floyd said a few moments later.
“Takes a heck of a lot of oxygen to say that,” Chauvin replied nonchalantly.
After the remark, Floyd said he could not breathe four times and “please” three times, and then nothing. Lane, who had called for an ambulance because Floyd’s mouth was bleeding, asked Chauvin whether he wanted Floyd on his side.
“No, leave him,” Chauvin said. He said an ambulance was coming.
In the middle of this — of a man dying, under his knee — Chauvin checked his rookies. “You guys all right, though?” Chauvin asked.
Lane asked again if they should roll Floyd on his side. Onlookers asked if he had a pulse. “You got one?” Lane asked.
“I can’t find one,” Kueng said.
“Uh-huh,” Chauvin replied.
Kueng tried again, and again said he could not find a pulse. Still, Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than two minutes. He ignored the crowd, the pleas for Floyd’s life, the jeers. He waited for an ambulance that showed up far too late. And only then did Chauvin stand up.